Vegetarian cooking can be as simple as throwing everything in the crockpot, turning it on low, and coming back hours later to a hot meal.
For my friend Odette, saving time is the whole point to crockpot cooking, and there's no time saved if you have to pre-cook ingredients, or add them part way through cooking.
On the other hand more complex crockpot cooking IS worthwhile, as in Robin Robertson's cookbook, 'Fresh From The Vegetarian Slowcooker'.
Robin says, "In some cases, it's important to brown or sauté some ingredients first, to get the most flavor, a more appealing color, or to jumpstart the cooking process."
Whether you're a minimalist, or not, you can safely go away for hours, and leave dinner cooking in your crockpot. For busy multi-tasking people, that's the Big Appeal.
Having a crockpot or two can make the difference between eating well, or NOT. You can't cook everything in a crockpot - but enough to make crockpots indispensible.
Since crockpots are inexpensive, you'll want to own more than one. And, you'll want a multi-device timer. WHY will shortly be revealed.
a) Using a digital appliance timer to turn your crockpot or slowcooker on and off greatly expands the possibilities. E.G. - Say that you leave the house at 8:00 a.m. and return at 7:00 p.m. The crockpot recipe you want to start before you leave will be done five hours before you get home. The easy solution: Plug your crockpot into the timer, set it to start at 1:00 p.m., and supper will be ready when you get home.
Note: I say 'digital timer', instead of 'kitchen timer', because the kitchen timers that you have to set manually, by pushing little levers in and out, are a pain in the neck. If you get one of those, you'll never use it. Here are a few links for digital timers:Simple plug in digital timer, with battery backup, $12.99 plus shipping EcoPlus 15 Amp Grounded Digital Plug-In Timer. Battery backup. Power on and off up to 6 times in 24 hours Intermatic 7 Day Heavy DutyDigital Plug-in Timer with Astronomic Feature
X10 MiniTimer: Digital, Wireless. Add On Appliance Modules available, can control several appliances at once. Plug appliances into the Appliance Mod before plugging them into the walls so you can control them with X10 controllers. You can in fact do all kinds of things with this gadget - run just about everything electrical in your entire household. Even has a keychain remote. It sounds great, although I don't know how easy it is to install or use.
b) Cold Starts: Pull a container of soup or stew out of the freezer in the morning, put in the crock pot on keep warm, or low, and set the digital timer to cook for however long you want. You can thaw a container of beans, to add to a stirfry or salad, or quickly make up into refried beans or veggie burgers. A one pot meal can be ready to eat when you get home.
c) Start The Day Before: Add the ingredients for a one dish meal to the crockpot the night before, put it in the fridge, then start it cold in the morning. That adds another hour or two to the cooking time.
a) Beans love to simmer all day, but veggies don't. While the beans cook in the crockpot, brown rice can be soaking. When you get home, drain the rice, add water, and cook - it won't take long because it's soaked all day. Or use a rice cooker with a timer. Quickly chop and stir fry some veggies, add some spices, a few of the beans and some of the cooking liquid mixed with cornstarch. Add salt or soy sauce, tomato sauce, curry paste, pepper, fresh herbs, or whatever enhancements you like, then serve over rice. Freeze the remaining beans & veg for another day.
b) Roast or bake vegetables in your crockpot: Normally, it's time and energy consuming to bake things in the oven, and you have to be there. Baking in the crockpot works well, and can be done with or without oil, herbs etc. No water is needed as the veggies have enough of their own, and they won't dry out in the crockpot like they do in the oven. Use a digital timer (1. a)) to turn the crockpot on at the right time, which will vary with the crockpot and the vegetable. I've found I can bake a large potato or medium yam on low in four hours, or on high in two hours. Root veggies or potatoes cut in big chunks take less time. I recommend coating cut veggies with oil. Serve the veggies with a salad, bread or noodles, and some fried tofu or hummus - all of which are fast.
c) Combine sauteed and frozen ingredients: This technique calls for some planning and prepping ahead of time, and maybe even (gasp!) getting up a few minutes earlier. IMHO, it beats coming home hungry and tired and having to choose between real food, and a frozen pizza. Precook a grain or noodles - you can do that the night before - and save it tightly covered in the fridge. Chop and saute veggies in oil, adding herbs and spices at the end. Add to crock pot along with frozen or canned beans or lentils, and the amount of liquid you want. Set the digital timer to turn the crockpot on low for four hours. Come home, thicken or sauce the beans and veggies, and warm up the noodles or rice. Takes 5 - 10 minutes. Chew on a celery stick while you're waiting! Or dip the celery and some corn chips into hummus.
d) Use a BIG Crockpot And Make Extra To Freeze For Several Meals: You can do this no matter what crockpot techniques you use, or what you're cooking, with a couple of exceptions. You shouldn't refreeze formerly frozen food for reasons to do with food safety. It'll work with 1. c) or 2. a) above, but not with 1. b) or 2. c). If you're cooking veggies only, cooked veggies don't always freeze well by themselves, and they make unappealing leftovers. I sometimes will refrigerate and incorporate leftover yam or potato in a soup or stew the next day. However, there's no reason why you can't freeze several meals worth of soup or stew and reheat in the crockpot once a week - that's leftover heaven!
This is where you'll find you need more than one crockpot. A little experimentation will tell you which steamer-bowl-crockpot combinations to use. Round crockpots work well for this, since steamer inserts are round, and so are most bowls. I like round crockpots better, but try to find one! (Try amazon.com) Unfortunately, oval crockpots are all the rage.
a) Steam Veggies In Your Crockpot: Preheat the crock pot on high. Add a steamer basket of veggies, selected and cut to cook at about the same rate. That means small chunks for hard veggies like carrots, larger chunks for soft veggies like zucchini. Add two cups boiling water, and cover the crockpot. Cook for 1 - 2 hours depending on how you like your veggies. Or use the digital timer - 1. a) to start the crockpot a couple of hours before you get home.
b) Use Your Crockpot As A Rice Cooker: Or to cook any grain - quinoa, buckwheat, millet, barley, oatmeal, etc. Wash, rinse and drain the grain. Preheat the crockpot as above, and add the steamer basker, minus the center post, which unscrews. Put the grain in a 1 - 2 qt straight sided pyrex or stainless steel bowl. Place the bowl in the steamer basket. Add boiling water - the amount called for in the recipe - and a pinch of salt to the grain. Cover the bowl with a pot lid, or plate, and put the lid on the crockpot. Cook for 2 hours. If you do this without preheating the crockpot, cook for three hours. For a cold start, double the time to 4 hours.
a) Cook And Drive At The Same Time: It's amazing what some vegetarians will do to avoid fast food restaurants! I find when I'm locked into travel food purgatory, it gives me a satisfying feeling of normalcy & well-being - not to mention smugness - to cook myself a hot meal, while driving down the road. This is a little dicy - you have to avoid collisions at all costs, and almost certainly prep everything before departing. But it can be done! Get a cord to plug your crockpot into the power outlet of your car. I found one the other day at Radio Shack, and I'm sure you can find them at other electronics stores or sites. But you have to be careful to match the power cord with the wattage of your crockpot. Hamilton Beach makes a crockpot with a locking lid (see, and some have insulated carry bags. Putting the crock pot in a covered box with wood or styrofoam blocks will stabilize it. Old towels or pillows or blankets will insulate, once the crockpot is turned off.
b) Use A Crockpot To Cook In Motel Rooms: A hotplate is also handy, for making rice, or hot cereal, heating a tortilla or even warming up canned or frozen food. I always cook in the bathroom and run the fan to avoid setting off a smoke alarm or inviting a knock on the door. You can transport the crockpot + contents inside a small cooler with a couple of cheap polyester pillows, or better yet, put the contents in food thermoses. If all that seems like too much trouble, I know a few vegans who just eat raw on the road. If you travel a lot you could get mighty skinny! There's always fries and chocolate bars, but that gets old fast. Finding out of the way ethnic restaurants is always fun and interesting, if time consuming - food poisoning especially will slow you down.
c) Once You Reach Your Destination: Crockpots (and hotplates) are handy to have in less than optimal cooking situations, such as vacation rentals, college dorm rooms, or Other People's Non-Vegetarian Kitchens. Just stick your crockpot in a quiet corner, where it will discreetly cook your strange veggie food.
d) Take Your Crockpot To Parties: Crockpots (and hotplates) are a great way to keep food (e.g. casseroles, soups, warm dips, grains) and drinks (like herb tea or apple cider) warm at a party or potluck. Once the crockpot and the food are hot, they'll stay that way for quite a while even without the crockpot plugged in.
a)For Lacto-Vegetarians - Make Gee: This is the easiest way to make ghee that I know. You can start it in the morning, and leave it cooking all day, or start it before you go to bed, let it cook all night, turn it to keep warm all day, then deal with it when you come home in the evening.
Ghee Recipe: Put three pounds of unsalted butter in a 4 qt crockpot on low. Leave it for eight hours uncovered, then check it. If you're going to be there, and want a faster cooking time, start on high for 4 hours, then turn to low. When the ghee is finished, the milk solids should have separated into brown crusty foam on top, and brown crusty curds on the bottom, with clear yellow butter fat in between. If it's not quite there yet, if the bottom layer still seems kind of runny, that means that all the liquid hasn't bubbled off yet, and it needs another hour or two or three. Ghee can take 12 hours or more, depending on the crockpot temp. When the ghee is done, pour it through a strainer lined with a piece of clean rag - a piece of old dishtowel, sheet, pillowcase, or napkin - into a large container, then pour it into 3 pint jars, put on tight fitting lids, and refrigerate.
b) Heat A Neck or Foot or Bed Warmer Beanbag: A friend of mine makes neck warmers out of cherry pits sewn into a cloth tube - an old tube sock works great. You can also use beans or grains, but cherry pits are harder and more durable. She heats the warmers in a crockpot set on low, then drapes them over the back of her neck and shoulders - a wonderful treat for a sore neck, or cold feet! Or for warming up your bed on cold nights.
c) Simmer Herbal Tea Mixes: Rosemary Gladstar's Family Herbal has lot's of recipes for great herbal teas, many of which require simmering. For which a crockpot is ideal. Pre-heat the crockpot on low, add the herbs, pour boiling water over them, put the lid on, and go do something else for an hour. You can also keep your favorite hot drinks warm all day in the crockpot.
Crockpots Favor Wet Cooking Techniques: So they aren't so great for certain foods that are normally baked (mac'n'cheese, enchiladas), or foods that are usually fried, grilled or broiled - e.g. oven fries, veggie burgers, baked tofu, etc. If some crockpot recipe strikes you as unlikely, it probably is!
Crockpots Aren't The Best For Cooking Grains: So far I've met with no success cooking grains in my crockpot. Crockpot experts sadly agree with me. Grains inevitably end up unevenly cooked - overcooked and crusty on the outside, undercooked and wet on the inside. I think it's because of the way that crockpots distribute heat, surrounding the food with the heating element, and cooking it from the ouside in. However, the crockpot steaming method in 4. b), works - I think it's because indirect, moist heat penetrates faster and more evenly.
Avoid Food Poisoning: I've heard that there's no such thing as 'stomach flu'. It's always food poisoning. So - don't leave food sitting around in the crockpot all day on the warm setting. Nasty bacterias just love that! When the food is cooked and you're ready to eat, turn off the crockpot. When you're finished eating, and you want to save the rest for another meal, put the contents in a tightly sealed container, and put that in the fridge or freezer, right away.
Did I Mention That Slow Cookers Are Slow? Don't throw something in the crockpot at eleven, and expect lunch to be ready at twelve. It doesn't work that way. Slowcookers, aka crockpots require planning ahead, and patience, or at least, turning them on and then going away and doing your Type A thing, while they do their slow cooking thing all day or night.
Crockpots AKA Slowcookers are amazing, and you can do so much with them, but I still haven't figured out how to get mine to clean up the kitchen!
a) Crockpots Get Hot On The Outside: So be careful where you put them. Make sure it's out of the way of children, animals, and clumsy adults - toward the back of the counter is fine, as they don't release steam.
b) Don't Overfill Your Crockpot: Two thirds full is good - to avoid boiling over, which is Not Fun to clean up.
c) Be Safe Not Sorry: Don't submerge the electrical part of your crockpot in water especially while plugged in. This may seem like an obvious point, but as with any electrical appliance, it bears repeating.
Of you can only buy one crockpot,I recommend getting at a 6 qt size, in a low to medium price range, round or oval as you prefer. Since it'll cook more than you need, make extra to freeze for another day or two or three. It's handy to have a 4 qt crockpot or smaller as well. I use mine mostly for thawing or re-heating. I've noticed that small crockpots run pretty hot - maybe something to do with the ratio of cooking surface to heating element. If you're cooking for one or two, and don't want to make extra, a 2 qt round crockpot is nice, and a good size for travel.
If you want to pay for the name, and features you don't need Cuisinart, Kitchen Aid and other brands have high priced slow cookers! Proctor Silex, Rival, West Bend and Hamilton Beach are well known, reliable low-priced brands. I found round slow cookers in those brands online, mostly on amazon.com. I've had a basic 6 qt West Bend and a 4 qt Hamilton Beach crock pot for two years, with no problems, but they're oval. I found a Hamilton Beach stainless steel Stay or Go 6-Quart Slow Cooker,$30 - $46, with a lock down lid, lid rest, and large handles for carrying.
Rival has had recall problems and complaints about breakage. But: Rival makes a nice 5 qt round crockpot. And the 6 qt Versaware, with a stoneware insert that can be used on the stovetop, and in the oven, with a heavy stoneware lid, and timer (though not programable).
Programable crockpots are available, but for the extra money, a digital timer will work as well, and can be programmed up to 24 hours. The only advantage of programmable crockpots is that some of them will cook on high for the programmed time, then automatically set the temp to keep warm. If you set the digital timer to turn off just when you're about to get home, you don't need that feature anyway.